Game Scout: Bills looking to finish at .500

While Patriots need a win and help to make the playoffs, the Bills just want to finish at 8-8. Here's your weekly lowdown...

New England Patriots (10-5) at Buffalo Bills (7-8)

GAME SNAPSHOT

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET

GAMEDATE: 12/28/08

SURFACE: AstroPlay

TV: CBS (Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf)

SERIES: 97th regular-season meeting. The Patriots lead the all-time series 55-40-1. They've won nine in a row against Buffalo and 14 out of 15. Lifetime, they own a 26-21-1 record in Buffalo and have not lost at Ralph Wilson Stadium since their 31-0 setback in the 2003 season opener. The only statistic on the Bills' side is their 19-15 record against the Patriots at Ralph Wilson.

PREDICTION: Patriots 24-16

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Bills managed just one sack in the first meeting and must find a way to make Patriots QB Matt Cassel more uncomfortable in the pocket. If not, he has more weapons downfield than Buffalo can reasonably expect to contain. Cassel also scrambled nine times in the first meeting, contributing to a 144-yard rushing day for the team. This time around, New England has an even better balance with RBs Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan healthy.

With RB Marshawn Lynch ailing, backup Fred Jackson could see increased snaps. And Buffalo needs to take advantage of the Patriots' injury-thinned linebacker corps by working the ground game early and setting QB Trent Edwards up for manageable passing situations. New England can be shaky in the secondary, and for the rematch Buffalo has a healthy Josh Reed working opposite big-play WR Lee Evans.

Key Injuries: Patriots: LB Tedy Bruschi (knee) is unlikely to play. S James Sanders (abdominal) and DE Richard Seymour (back) are uncertain. Bills: Lynch (shoulder) is expected to play; LT Jason Peters (knee) and WR Roscoe Parrish (knee) are likely game-time decisions; CB Jabari Greer (knee) is unlikely to play.

Need to know: The Patriots clinch the AFC East with a win and a loss by Miami. They can make the playoffs with a win and a loss by Baltimore. ... Edwards lead the NFL with a 117.0 fourth-quarter passer rating.

PERSONNEL NEWS

Patriots:

--DE Richard Seymour still hasn't practiced this week due to a bad back and remains a game-time decision for Sunday. Various reports suggest he won't play after injuring himself last week against Arizona.

--LB Tedy Bruschi missed practice this week due to a knee injury and has not played in the last two games, so it's unlikely he'll be back by Sunday. The Patriots haven't put him on injured reserve yet, so there's a chance he could make a return in the postseason if the team qualifies.

--CB Ellis Hobbs has been limited in practice this week due to a lingering shoulder injury, but he will be on the field Sunday as he has this entire month despite the pain.

--C/G Billy Yates also missed Wednesday's practice, though his hand injury is not believed to be serious. Yates likely hurt himself in practice on Tuesday.

--NT Vince Wilfork has practiced all week despite a shoulder injury and will be on the field Sunday in Buffalo.

Bills:

--RB Marshawn Lynch has been named a third alternate for the Pro Bowl. He would play if either Thomas Jones of the New York Jets or Ronnie Brown of Miami can't play or elect not to. Lynch, who has rushed for 1,036 yards and eight TDs, is nursing a sore shoulder but is expected to see some playing time in Sunday's finale against New England.

--DT Marcus Stroud has been named a third alternate for the Pro Bowl. A three-time Pro Bowl selection previously with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Stroud is now listed behind New York's Kris Jenkins and Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth, who is injured and may not be able to play in the all-star game in Hawaii.

--OT Kirk Chambers is getting reps with the first team in practice in case he needs to start in place of Jason Peters again on Sunday against New England. Peters has a sore knee.

--WR Josh Reed, who didn't play in the first meeting with New England, enters Sunday's season finale against the Patriots coming off a career-high nine catches in a victory over Denver. He has 54 catches for 576 yards and one TD on the year. Nearly 67 percent of his receptions have resulted in first downs, indicative of his importance to the offense.

--WR Roscoe Parrish's 15.33 yards per punt return average ranks second in team history, behind his 16.30 set last year. Parrish didn't have a return or a fair catch in last week's win at Denver. He's nursing a sore knee but is expected to play in Sunday's finale at home against New England, whose punt coverage ranks 29th in the NFL.

INSIDE THE CAMPS

Patriots:

When Tom Brady went down with a season-ending injury in Week 1, the New England Patriots figured backup quarterback Matt Cassel could do enough to manage games while others stepped up to fill the void.

They never thought they'd ask him to deliver a signature win. As we head into Week 17 with the season on the line, that's exactly what they're asking from the former seventh-round draft pick: Save our season.

"Whatever is going to get us into the playoffs, whatever scenario does --whether it's home-field advantage, whether it's not, whether it's being a wild card -- I think whatever is best for the Patriots, I'm going to go with that route," Cassel said.

"I'm going to continue to cheer for whatever is best for us, whether it be the Jets or the Ravens. I don't know the scenarios. All I know is that we have to go to Buffalo and win and then whatever is best for us, hopefully it works out."

Since they need help from the Jets and Jaguars just to get to the playoffs, the Patriots are dealing with the realistic possibility that this could be Cassel's last game in New England. He's a free agent at the end of the season and Brady -- barring any unforeseen circumstances -- will be back and under contract in 2009, leaving Cassel with a chance to test the market.

"Nobody knows the future," he said. "If anybody knew the future, I probably wouldn't be here right now because a lot of people predicted I wouldn't be here after preseason. The fact is nobody knows where I'm going to be next year, so I could definitely be back here. It's something we'll have to wait and see."

The young quarterback has grown tremendously in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' system and would love to stay, though that may not be a realistic option.

"I don't know what the situation might be, but the Patriots are home to me right now," Cassel said. "That's all I've ever known in my professional career.

"They have such a great group of guys here and you build such chemistry with these people and (form) relationships on and off the field, and also the coaching here, from coach (Bill) Belichick down to coach McDaniels. What they're able to do always amazes you and as a young player who is eager to learn and eager to get better, they continue to put you in good situations and they want to help you learn and want to help you become a better player. I think that's something that I really appreciate over these last four years of being a Patriot the most."

In return, the Patriots would appreciate another trip to the playoffs, which won't be possible without another big performance from their unexpected offensive leader.

"It really comes down to us winning," Cassel said, "because that's the only way in which we're going to get to where we want to be, which is a spot in the playoffs."

Bills:

Dick Jauron could be coaching his last game for the Buffalo Bills on Sunday when they plays host to the New England Patriots.

Owner Ralph Wilson said he would determine Jauron's status in postseason meetings with front-office staff, even though Jauron has signed a three-year extension already.

If Buffalo (7-8) loses to New England (10-5), it would mark a third consecutive 7-9 finish under Jauron, who has had just one winning season in eight years as an NFL head coach.

Jauron's players know their coach's job is on the line and that's provided plenty of motivation for them to win on Sunday because they do like playing for him. Beyond that, snapping a 10-game losing streak to their chief AFC rival is also motivating.

"He's been really good to us as a coach, but not only the field, but off the field," wide receiver Josh Reed said. "He's a great guy, he's always around and he's more of a player's coach."

Veteran defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, who joined the Bills as a free agent, called Jauron a "stand-up kind of guy." He said Jauron has taken the heat for mistakes players have made. Critics of Jauron said that has fostered a locker-room atmosphere where players aren't accountable.

"Like I said earlier, anytime you have a coach like coach Jauron, you want to stand up and play hard for him," Stroud said. "And if that's going to determine whether he'll be here next year or not, we're going to try to turn it up an extra notch and play that much better."

Jauron is touched that his players want to win for him. And beating New England would make it extra nice. The Patriots have won 15 of 16 games overall against Buffalo.

"It's hard to see beyond just the motivation itself in playing a division rival who we haven't had success against, who has been the dominant force in our division for a long time, and just to win a game," Jauron said of the overall significance of Sunday's season finale.

"Just to win a single game is hard to do in our business, and they're very, very good. They're a very talented football team. Any other issues around it, I don't know how they could mean any more to us than just the rivalry itself, the division itself, the game itself, a single game."

Courtesy of The Sports Xchange.


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